The Long Play #1.1

Wil Jones investigates the use of music within advertising.

Sunday 28th January 2018

The festive period was once marked by celebrating the winter solstice, Advent, or simply a brief break from the grind of work. Instead, it has become one notorious for talent-show Christmas number ones, a soft drink’s haulage vehicle, and – a more recent phenomenon, but one that has been fully embraced by both companies and audiences – the big-brand Christmas advert, almost always accompanied by a sentimental acoustic ballad.

Now that Christmas is well and truly over, and the daily possibility of nuclear war is firmly back on the cards, it’s easier to cast a more exacting eye over the mechanics of our festive feelings as they fade with the dimming of the fairy lights. And, as we adjust to these gloomier times, January’s sobering clarity helps us see precisely how music is employed in oiling the wheels of the Christmas juggernaut – through advertising.

“What’s the problem with the music used in Christmas adverts, Scrooge”, cry those who well-up when animated animals express love through colour-coded kettles. An apt question: to answer it, we need to travel back to the beginning of the millennium –  to the film Donnie Darko.

Alongside an evocative soundtrack from the 1980s, Donnie Darko is most synonymous with one song: Mad World, originally by Tears for Fears, musically stripped down to an acoustic piano by Gary Jules in his 2002 cover. The song muses on repressed trauma and its release – “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. It is an apt tonal accompaniment to Donnie Darko, even in Jules’ pared-back performance, yet seems wholly at odds with an advert for Lloyds Bank – the setting for a more recent acoustic cover of the song by Jennifer Ann.

Herein lies the power of the cover: where Jules replaced syncopated drums and droning synths with a minimal and lilting piano accompaniment, Ann’s version is driven by soaring strings and, crucially, no words. The musical backing swells with vigorous and sentimental rubato, reaching its crescendo as the horse-stroke-trademark gallops behind a young couple kissing; it’s a saccharine moment, akin to a poor filmic adaptation of a Brontë novel yet, without lyrics, any explicit worldly madness in Roland Orzabal’s original writing is conspicuous in its absence – the song’s meaning is lost, or perhaps intentionally obscured, in this reworking. If it feels particularly galling that banks are now marketing themselves as pillars of the community in this post-recession world of austerity – supporters of family, relationships, and the ‘journey’ from birth to sanitised death whilst using such a song – you’re almost certainly not the only who feels this way. Hopefully.

It’s important to remember what adverts are: they are made to create or reinforce associations between a brand or product and the emotional response of the viewer. From mystique in perfume, to adventure or danger in alcohol, and comedy figures in pay-day loans and gambling, the essential ingredient is always to create positive associations between the brand or product and the essence of the advert. Acoustic covers in adverts do precisely this; their purpose is a seamless fusion reliant on carrying whatever mood is stirred by the music over to whatever is being sold.

Although the Christmas advert is a relatively new phenomenon, this isn’t a new technique. From donkey sanctuaries to starving children, advertising has used sentimental music to evoke sympathy long before it became a means of romanticising department stores, and the effectiveness in conveying horror and suffering is so galling that many choose to change the channel. Perhaps it’s better to flick over to where the very same musical technique is used to conjure warm, fuzzy feelings that placate, rather than engender, fear; an advert that soothes our worries that the mythologised world we are told to believe in and strive for might, in fact, be little more than fiction; an advert that shrinks the world to a house in a suburb, where happiness can be bought in a catalogue. It’s Christmas, after all, not a time to be worrying about the impoverished.

Whatever the merits of individual charitable organisations, the suffering that derives, in part, from an unequal, global economic system of consumerism is very much a material and tangible reality – unlike the emotional mythology attached to brands through advertising. People are starving – and donkeys are still mistreated – yet does the world of the Christmas advert really exist? In some ways, the appeal of the advert is precisely because it is a story; its popularity is the desire for life to be as simple as the micro-fictional arc that offers such a succinct, and heart-warming, resolution. It portrays a world that is recognisable enough to be familiar, but fantastical enough to be aspirational, too.

Part 2 will be published 11th February.